The theatricality of the warmth on show between British prime minister Rishi Sunak and French president Emmanuel Macron during their summit in Paris should not detract from how important it is that Franco-British cooperation has been renewed.
Relations reached rock bottom under Boris Johnson and his successor Liz Truss. The latter’s famous comment that the “jury is out” on whether Macron was a friend or foe shocked diplomats around the world.
Deep sighs of relief will be audible from both sides of the Channel now that Sunak has made it clear Macron is a firm friend. It is also a cautious step by the UK to recognise the importance of its European partners – something it has strenuously attempted to avoid during the Brexit years. However, it is not going to be easy to deliver on the key promises that come out of the summit. Three areas stand out as significant.
Paying France to manage small boats before they leave
Brexit made much of taking back control, especially when it came to the UK’s border and immigration policy. It’s somewhat paradoxical, therefore, that the UK has received 74,751 asylum claims in 2022 – the highest number since 2002’s all-time peak of 84,132.
Channel crossings only account for some of these but have been controversial because the people arriving on small boats are arriving from France – a safe country. The EU has long struggled with “asylum shopping”, where the secondary movement of migrants means that they do not stay in the first safe EU country they arrive in. Its response was the Dublin regulation, which requires claims to be processed in the first “Dublin country” that the asylum seeker arrives in. After Brexit, the UK exited the Dublin convention and entered a paradox. In seeking more control of its borders, it forfeited the benefits of being in a cooperation treaty with its neighbours that could help limit arrivals.
Sunak agreed to give France an extra £500 million over three years to construct a migrant detention centre, but this is highly unlikely to stop the flow of migrants to the UK. Indeed, we have been here many times before. The UK has made payments to bolster French border enforcement with little success. The UK’s complaints about the Sangatte refugee camp that was run by the Red Cross in the early 2000s and was a source of tension between the two states.
In practical terms, the UK cannot now insist on, and the French will not accept, returning migrants to France. Nor is re-entry into the Dublin agreement on the cards. The detention centre has been billed as a huge step forward, but the measures are unlikely to have a meaningful impact on channel crossings.
Moving on from Aukus drama
France and the UK were on opposing sides of the explosive Aukus submarine affair that saw Australia snub France to procure submarines from the UK and the US.
This strained relations significantly. But the Ukraine conflict has re-energised the western military alliance – a group in which the US, France and the UK are the three nuclear powers and have the most technologically advanced militaries. Even at the height of the Aukus spat, a range of bilateral agreements tied the British and French militaries together.
The two have renewed commitments to ensure that their military equipment is interoperable and say they will work together to address the supply chain problems that have been exposed by the Ukraine conflict. This is a reminder – and perhaps one that shouldn’t be needed – that the UK and France generally find themselves on the same side on important global conflicts.
The quest for a European military-industrial complex is consistently dogged by how difficult it is to bring British and French – and by extension European – defence industries together.
Both the French government and French defence contractors have been historically difficult to cooperate with, and at times outright hostile to foreign partners. After much wrangling, France ultimately pulled out of the project to develop Eurofighter Typhoon, a true European fourth-generation fighter jet. It instead chose to go its own way with the Dassault Rafale. Similarly, with a fifth generation fighter now the goal, France and the UK are in separate alliances – the former working with Italy and Japan and the latter with Germany.
It can be incredibly difficult to turn warm joint declarations of military allyship into concrete and effective procurement cooperation.
France and the UK have long been connected when it comes to energy supply. France has a huge supply of electricity from its nuclear fleet, after all. This interconnectedness has been derailed not because of conflict in the former USSR but by defects found in French reactors.
New commitments to develop not only energy infrastructure but green energy infrastructure demonstrate how both sides of the Channel see their energy futures as combined. However, these reactor defects and repeated strikes by French energy workers have contributed to the UK’s decision to use its coal powered contingency plans recently – a reminder that energy interdependence can lead to problems. Neither government can do much about this in the short to medium term.
The summit between Sunak and Macron showed that progress is possible and that the heat caused by Brexit is cooling. Domestically, Sunak has scored a triumph here and is looking like the kind of gifted international statesman that Brexit Britain so desperately needs. Indeed, the entente cordial that has been the bedrock of Franco-British relations since 1904 is not dead. If anything, global events are only likely to push the neighbours ever closer together, even if they are reluctant. However, the current administrations in both the UK and France have a finite lifespan. The personalised “bromance” between Sunak and Macron needs to be translated into something deeper if it is to last.
Joseph Downing does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.